The North Korea Problem

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The North Korea Problem

Pyongyang has successfully tested a long-range rocket. What may happen next — including missiles someday armed with nuclear warheads — could make matters worse.

After announcing that its rocket was facing technical difficulties that might delay its impending test, North Korea surprised the international community by abruptly launching a three-stage rocket on Wednesday morning local time. Even more surprising than the timing was that the “Unha” (the Korean word for “galaxy”) rocket appears to have successfully placed the Kwangmyongsong-3 (“Shining Star-3”) satellite into orbit, albeit there are reports that it is encountering difficulties.

But space enthusiasts have nothing to cheer. Under the guise of developing a space launch vehicle, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is pursuing an intercontinental-range missile (ICBM) capability that would allow it reach targets as far away as California and Alaska.  Long-range rockets designed as space delivery vehicles and long-range ballistic missiles intended to carry warheads use similar engines, boosters, and other technologies, though a satellite can be made lighter than a nuclear warhead, which needs a dense heat shield to withstand the high temperatures encountered in reentering the earth’s atmosphere. The Kwangmyongsong-3 weighs an estimated 100 kilograms, whereas a typical nuclear warhead weighs ten times more, though a good designer can make them far smaller and therefore lighter.

This was the fifth time the DPRK test launched a three-stage long-range missile potentially designed to reach the continental United States. Although the first four rocket tests failed, this most recent one has unexpectedly succeeded. The DPRK’s Taepodong (DPRK-named as Paektusan) long-range missiles use essentially the same technology as Unha and Paektusan rockets. The three-stage variants of these missiles have a potential range of perhaps 6,000-10,000 kilometers depending on the size of the payload it’s carrying, making it potentially sufficient to reach the western continental United States, which is roughly 9,000 km from North Korea.

The second rocket launch this year is yet another sign that the new generation of leaders in Pyongyang, led by Kim Jong-un, who assumed office last December, have not fundamentally departed from Kim Jong-il’s foreign and defense policies. In fact, DPRK propaganda has used the rocket test to glorify the achievements of the Kim dynasty. The DPRK’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said that, “At a time when great yearnings and reverence for Kim Jong-il pervade the whole country, its scientists and technicians brilliantly carried out his behests to launch a scientific and technological satellite in 2012, the year marking the 100th birth anniversary of President Kim Il Sung,” a reference to North Korea’s first leader and Kim Jong-un’s grandfather. The launch also commemorates the first anniversary of Kim Jong-il’s death, and more than compensates for the embarrassment Kim Jong-un suffered when the test in April proved to be a spectacular failure.

The latest test may be designed to influence the leadership changes that are occurring in China, Japan, and South Korea, with the latter two countries holding elections later this month. The successful test also places Pyongyang in a better negotiating position with its neighbors by bolstering its claim to having obtained a nuclear deterrent.

Although it remains a fair degree away from fielding a reliable nuclear deterrent, North Korea has repeatedly demonstrated that it is willing to pay dearly to acquire one. Last April’s test came at the cost of losing the conditional food aid the U.S. had pledged as part of a deal reached with Pyongyang in February of this year. The DPRK’s ballistic missile tests in 2006 and 2009 were similarly costly, resulting in UN Security Council sanctions being imposed on the country.

The DPRK responded both occasions with aggressive rhetoric and by testing a nuclear explosive, something many fear it is preparing to do again. The upsurge in tensions in 2009 also saw North Korea withdraw from the Six-Party Talks then underway between China, Japan, Russia, North and South Korea, and the United States. They have yet to resume.

Although the Six-Party-Talks do not address the DPRK’s missile capabilities directly, any enduring solution to the DPRK proliferation problem will require stringent constraints on the North’s missile activities. North Korea uses its missiles to enhance its own strike capabilities, compensate for its weak air force, and acquire hard currency by selling its weaponry on the open market. Although internal political and bureaucratic factors may be driving such a quest, the DPRK would also like the means to threaten the U.S. homeland to deter the United States from using force against it.  Since its longer-range missiles are inaccurate, the DPRK wants to arm them with nuclear rather than much less-powerful conventional warheads.

As noted above, the DPRK has yet to demonstrate that it has manufactured a functional nuclear warhead that can fly long distances safely atop a ballistic missile and reenter the earth’s atmosphere with sufficient safety and accuracy. The North’s two previous tests of a nuclear explosive device were not seen as entirely successful, perhaps due to faults in the design of the warhead. The process of miniaturizing even a functioning nuclear weapon to place it inside a warhead is complex since it has to be able to withstand the tremendous heat that it encounters during launch and reentry. For example, a more accurate ICBM with a high ballistic coefficient would have to endure temperatures of around 2,000 degrees Celsius when reentering the atmosphere.

How long it will take the DPRK to do this depends on whether North Korea has been able to obtain one of the designs for tested warheads that the A. Q. Khan illicit trafficking network was selling on the black market, which would likely accelerate its progress. The DPRK reportedly obtained designs for centrifuges for enriching uranium from the Khan network. Another question is how much nuclear- and missile-related assistance the DPRK has and will receive from other foreign countries, especially China. The DPRK leadership would also want to convince others that the warhead and missiles could work as designed, which would require more successful nuclear warhead and ballistic missile tests.

Nonetheless, such tasks are not especially difficult if the DPRK is given enough time and additional opportunities for long-range missile testing. North Korea has already tested two nuclear explosive devices and, in view of its estimated past production of plutonium, likely possesses several nuclear weapons. It also is developing the capacity to enrich its large indigenous stocks of natural uranium into a nuclear warhead. The DPRK’s related research and development efforts focus on making warheads sufficiently small and secure that they can carry a nuclear weapon or other dangerous agents on North Korea’s ballistic missiles.

The question is how the U.S. and its allies can prevent North Korea from succeeding in this quest. One difficulty in addressing the North Korean threat is getting Russia and China to go along with more strident policy measures. Beijing and Moscow share some of the United States’ concerns regarding North Korea, and both urged North Korea not to go ahead with the rocket launch, and expressed regret after the fact.

Nonetheless, while Chinese and Russian officials generally agree that the world would be better if North Korea didn’t have nuclear-armed long-range missiles, they differ with Western governments on the tactics to pursue to avoid such an adverse outcome. At the end of the day, Chinese and Russian strategists consider DPRK missiles as posing only an indirect threat, since they do not foresee any reason why the DPRK would attack them.

Furthermore, they oppose strong sanctions that could precipitate the DPRK regime’s collapse, which would likely leave a failed state on their border. In fact, China and Russia remain more concerned about the DPRK’s collapse than Pyongyang’s intransigence regarding its nuclear and missile development programs.

Importantly, however, Chinese and Russian policymakers increasingly worry that the DPRK’s actions will encourage other countries — such as South Korea and Japan — to pursue their own offensive and defensive strategic weapons, especially nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and ballistic missile defense, which Tokyo, Seoul and perhaps other countries could someday use against China or Russia.

Another consideration affecting U.S. policy toward the DPRK nuclear issue is that American policymakers also do not want U.S. allies in the Pacific to perceive Washington as neglecting their security interests. The DPRK’s development of nuclear weapons and its improving ballistic missile capability has already affected East Asian regional security in many dimensions, including by calling into question U.S. security guarantees to Japan and South Korea.

This is, at least in part, why Japanese officials complain to their U.S. counterparts that the United States and the other parties to the Six-Party Talks do not pay sufficient attention to the DPRK’s missile capabilities. Japanese security experts also worry that American officials would accept a deal that would constrain DPRK long-range missile activities but not similarly restrict North Korean missiles having a shorter range (i.e., those that could reach Japan but not North America). Yet, Japanese leaders have not offered new initiatives to address these issues or break the current stalemate in the talks, which have remained in abeyance since 2009.

Another issue of concern to Japan and other U.S. allies, as well as Washington itself, is the credibility of Washington’s extended nuclear deterrence guarantees in East Asia. Although extended nuclear deterrence is ironically most effective at dissuading a government from launching a large-scale war against a covered country, it is much less effective at averting lower-level provocations. As Abe Denmark pointed out in December 2011, “North Korea has conducted 221 attacks against the South since 1953, an average of almost four attacks per year.” Furthermore, the trend is not in the ROK’s favor, with North Korea’s 2010 incidents marking a major escalation from previous years.

As a result, ROK military leaders now emphasize in their declaratory doctrine the need for a prompt and vigorous response to future DPRK provocations. South Koreans, alone and in cooperation with the U.S. military, have also been engaged in an expanded series of exercises during the past year. Although Chinese and Russian officials have often opposed these as provocative, the North Koreans normally have acted quietly and cautiously while the exercises are taking place, although their first nuclear test in 2006 came shortly after the U.S.-ROK concluded their annual Ulchi Focus Lens (UFL) exercise.

Most recently, the ROK has announced the acquisition of new, longer range ballistic and cruise missiles. This acquisition was opposed by Beijing and not entirely welcome in Washington either. What might happen if the ROK actually uses all this firepower in response to a low-level DPRK provocation is anybody’s guess. A few Americans and South Koreans have called on the United States to return tactical nuclear weapons to the South, or even for the ROK to develop its own small nuclear arsenal, but most people, including this author, consider such a move counterproductive.

The main problem confronting the United States is that while North Korean leaders believe they need nuclear weapons to deter U.S. threats, the U.S. view is that enduring peace on the Korean peninsula requires that it be free of nuclear weapons. Consequently, Washington has said it is prepared to work with the other parties to compensate the DPRK for any steps it took towards ending its nuclear weapons and missile programs, including by supplying economic assistance and security guarantees. But since Pyongyang has continued its wayward ways, most recently by launching a long-range missile, the United States and its allies have shunned the DPRK diplomatically and punished it with additional unilateral and multilateral sanctions. Representatives of the current U.S. administration, like its predecessors, have also affirmed a readiness to curtail North Korean nuclear threats by means other than negotiations, including through increased sanctions, strengthening allied defenses in the East Asian region, and increasing U.S. and multinational interdiction efforts.

The Obama administration remains committed to the “action for action” approach that combines the use of positive and negative incentives with a willingness to engage the DPRK within the multilateral context of the Six-Party Talks. Under its policy of “strategic patience,” the Obama administration has demanded that the DPRK give some concrete indication, before resuming the Six-Party Talks, that the DPRK would make progress toward ending its nuclear weapons program. The Obama administration’s “strategic patience” policy does complement South Korea’s by joining with Seoul in refusing to resume direct negotiations with the DPRK until it clearly changes its policies.

But this policy of patiently waiting for verifiable changes in DPRK policies possesses several risks. First, it provides North Koreans with additional time to refine their nuclear and missile programs. Second, the current stalemate is inherently unstable. The DPRK could at any time resume testing its nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles, likely to confirm and support its quest for a reliable nuclear deterrent but also possibly out of simple frustration about being ignored. The strategy also risks allowing a minor incident to escalate through the ROK’s “proactive deterrence” policy, which calls for responding immediately and disproportionately to any DPRK military provocations to deter further aggression.

The worst scenario would see the DPRK leadership, thinking that their nuclear and missile arsenals would protect them by deterring potential counterattacks, launching another provocation only to trigger the massive and prompt response posited in the new ROK strategy. The DPRK might respond by detonating a nuclear device in order to shock the ROK and its foreign allies into de-escalating the crisis. Or it might simply bombard Seoul and its environs with the enormous number of artillery systems that the DPRK has amassed in the border region.